Posted in: Film Reviews

Review: Used Cars

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Is there a cure for Southern California? Oh, I don’t mean the smog, the materialism, “the City of the One-Night Stands,” any of that stuff—don’t bother me none. What’s getting to bother me in a big way is the barrenness of cinematic output from those children of Sunny Cal who seem to be running hog wild on the movie scene these days. We could argue about when it started. I couldn’t get too bent out of shape if somebody wanted to insist that Big Wednesday was A Bad Sign a couple of summers ago, even if I found that particular exercise in oafish metaphysics rather endearing; it surely did tend to crawl up its own nether orifice, striking monumental poses (and that’s a difficult position to strike monumental poses in) over a landscape of aspiration and endeavor so specialized as to have nothing but abstract meaning for any non-Californians—and maybe just nonsurfers—in the audience. And now Milius, for whose directorial career I continue to have high hopes, appears to prefer the role of ursine Godfather to all the up-and-coming—or at least oncoming—cinéastes south and Right of Zoetrope. First he exec-produced 1941 for Spielberg, and contributed to its story base along with Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, whose I Wanna Hold Your Hand Spielberg himself had exec-produced. Now he and Spielberg have exec-produced Zemeckis–Gale’s Used Cars, which by its very title sounds like a godawfully appropriate sequel to last Christmastime’s multimillion-dollar wrecking-derby-masquerading-as-a-hohoho-comedy. And in some important and increasingly distressing ways, it is.

Not that it’s multimillion-dollar-looking, as 1941 was, distractingly and depressingly. And not that all that many cars, sheds, and garages get wrecked. Crowded together, bumped, scraped, mangled, but not too many terminally trashed by the standards of this sort of picture. No, Used Cars is like 1941 in not being very funny very often (though, with less armament and materiel in motion, and without the historicity of WW2 to worry about, it’s easier to relax into a vagrant chuckle at it now and again). It’s like 1941 in being played broadly enough to knock the popcorn buckets out of the hands of anyone in the first five rows. It’s like 1941 and how-many-other in-jokey crossbreeds (Steve Spielberg does a guest bit near the end of The Blues Brothers, for instance) in taking for granted that there’s a movie culture out there that’s going to twig to all its signals, go along with its in-group casting ploys, be so tickled-pink at the beaming cheekiness of the whole project that they won’t mind the absence of emerging characterization, interesting performances with growing room, genuinely funny comic ideas, a narrative with enough attention span to build progressions from one scene to the next, supply the middles of jokes between setting-up and punchline-shot, or manifest a graceful sense of camera- and people-space—in other words, the absence of those bottom-line virtues that dozens of U.S. comedies of the Thirties and Forties (not just the masterworks by any means) used to display as a matter of professional course.

The ground is tricky here, because one can find ample evidence in Used Cars that someone has seen those films, someone who would also look dutifully respectful at the mention of Buster Keaton. Early in the film we watch the rear bumper assembly drop off a klunker as it’s driven off the central location, the used car lot where fast-but-not-really-smooth-talking Kurt Russell works; we watch, around midfilm, the tailgate falloff a station wagon as it’s driven out the same muddy exit (two obnoxious children also falling out at the same time, quite unnoticed by the new-owner parent); and we watch at the end as the official villain carelessly raps his hand on the tailfin of another wreck and causes the license-plate assembly to fall horizontally loose (occasioning a triumphant volte-face for the good guys, which we needn’t explain here), At some mechanical level of conception, this protracted sequence of events can be defined as a motif, even a comic progression (see parenthetical notes). But what an essentially dumb, empty comic idea this is!

Kurt Russell works a mark in Used Cars
Kurt Russell works a mark in "Used Cars"

This movie, like 1941, is calculated to work for, and depends on having, an audience that has pretty well made up its mind in advance that it will find the trashing of automobiles—and of personal and sociopolitical and even narrative morality—funny funny funny, by definition. Used Cars: ha ha. Used cars: paradigm of a capitalism-of-obsolescence society: ha ha. Used cars: a pristine comic environment for the celebration of cheating, so why shouldn’t the cheating hero (Russell), who is young and good-looking, triumph through his sleazy craft while the cheating villain (Jack Warden in an unrelievedly blustering performance), who is over the hill and ugly, fail through his identically sleazy craft? I don’t mean to plump for the reinstatement of Saturday Evening Post values, or suggest that the sun-drenched Southern-Cal children of movie culture and car culture be deprived of the right to draw on their native ethos for comic/satiric material; but amorality per se is simply BORING.

People come off badly in Used Cars. The new crop of filmmakers has some eminently talented performers to work with. Russell’s chief associate is played by Brian De Palma stalwart Gerrit Graham (who, in that director’s latest, tediously sophomoric comedy Home Movies, gets to cite John Milius as one of the touchstones of his philosophy of “Spartanetics”); Graham’s manic quality contributes to the more successful zaniness in the film, but basically he’s just recycling proven shtiks. Habitués of Second City TV know Joe Flaherty (now Joseph P. Flaherty) as a very funny fellow with a broad range of impersonation and invention; his U.S.O dance host in 1941 was a pale echo of SCTV’s Count Floyd, and his crooked municipal servant in Used Cars isn’t even that interesting—a narrow, minimally functional figure without a glimmer of comic potential. (His marvelously cruddy Second City colleague John Candy fares only slightly better in John Landis’s The Blues Brothers.) These guys are signed and then wasted—either given nothing to do that any cipher couldn’t handle as well, or scuttled in the editing. Meanwhile, a comedic stock company is in the process of being certified simply on the basis of recurrent appearances. Frank McRae (who served in 1941‘s tank crew) bids fair to be recognized as the dullest black performer in American movies today, but he gets to be Russell’s second second banana here. A special credit title is awarded Miss Wendie Jo Sperber (sic), who played the leering sleazebag in pursuit of Treat Williams throughout the second half of 1941. Sperber gives no sign of talent and is, moreover, relentlessly unappealing and unfunny; but the Spielberg-Milius-Zemeckis-Gale club has apparently determined that Miss Wendie Jo Sperber ought to be Somebody (the way Carrie Fisher, with slightly more reason, is showcased as a Somebody in and also outside of movies like The Blues Brothers), and so they keep almost finding things for her to do. (I’ve been spotting enough Sperbers in the tech credits of other movies to make me suspect she’s yet another, biologically certifiable child of the movies.) The third notable category of performer to be observed in these films is the veteran color-artist, put forth as a talisman of film tradition (and perhaps, in a more affectionate vein, given gainful employment) but almost invariably relegated either to quick-cameo, is-that-all-you-could-think-of-for-him-to-do? appearances—here, Dub Taylor—or repetitious, is-that-all-you-could-think-of-for-him-to-do? extended bits. In the latter situation, Woodrow Parfrey plays a crooked (everybody‘s crooked, donchaknow) driver-ed instructor who ends up in a car driven by Miss W.J.S. She is very bad at driving. And that’s the joke. We are to understand that she is bad but, except for a labored moment when she daren’t remove either her two-o’clock hand or her ten-o’clock hand from the steering wheel to turn the ignition key, this is not developed, or even articulated: poor Parfrey has merely to sit there looking miffed while Wendie Jo looks intense (i.e. bent-over and squinty). The mass crosscountry driving sequence in which she is participating is so muddled that we don’t even see her ineptitude have any effect on her close-pressing fellow drivers.

This arrant throwing of variegated personae at the audience is supposed to suggest a renewal of Sturgean vitality in the character-actor line. Adoration rather than admiration describes my own feeling about that breed of performer (v., most notably among contemporary filmmakers, the collected works of Sam Peckinpah), so the egregious waste of legitimate talents and the complacent proffering of counterfeits goes a long way toward explaining the despair a film like Used Cars provokes. That an occasional classical prototype is also discernible behind the dross of the present project only intensifies that emotion. It’s as if Zemeckis-Gale (and—say it isn’t so, guys—Spielberg-Milius) were saying: 1980 sucks. Values are lousy, people are lousy, the audience is lousy. Why shouldn’t movies be lousy too? Movies as used cars. Ha ha. So why am I shuddering?

© 1981 Richard T. Jameson

Direction: Robert Zemeckis. Screenplay: Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale. Cinematography: Donald M. Morgan. Production design: Peter M. Jamison. Editing: Michael Kahn. Music: Patrick Williams. Production: Bob Gale; executive producers: Steven Spielberg, John Milius.
The players: Kurt Russell, Jack Warden, Gerrit Graham, Frank McRae, Deborah Harmon, Joseph P. Flaherty, Harry Northup, David L. Lander, Michael McKean, Michael Talbott, Woodrow Parfrey, Alfonso Arau, Al Lewis, Dub Taylor, Andrew Duncan, Miss Wendie Jo Sperber, Marc McClure.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.